Saturday, November 14, 2015

After Paris: An Owl, An Offering

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
—Adam Zagajewski
(Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh.)


Yesterday, I watched a Great Horned Owl fly from the end of a creance line, her once fractured wing now strong enough to carry her across the soccer field.  A farmer found her over the summer with one end of a string knotted around her wing and the other end around a telephone wire.  Who knew how long she’d been dangling upside down like a broken, abandoned kite? 

Carol, the rehab center’s director, explained that the fracture was likely from the impact or her struggle to get free.  Weeks passed before Carol was certain the owl would survive since birds, like humans, experience shock after trauma (in animals called “capture myopathy”).  However, in birds and other animals (rabbits and deer), this can be fatal, rapidly burning up all available glycogen stores.  These animals can drop dead at the moment of trauma (e.g., trapped in a “humane” cage) or days and weeks later from systemic organ failure.             
This owl survived and was magnificent.  Ombré feathers moved from gray to brown to ruddy red to white, like a desert rock face changing with the light.  Feathered tufts, like flaming antennae, grew from each side of her head.  Her face was a great disc confined between dark parentheses.  And her eyes were big, yellow honey moons.  She swiveled her head, a perfect radar dish, and fixed her gaze on me.  Was she wondering if I was predator or prey?    

At the rehab center, Blake, a volunteer, had strapped jesses around the owl’s legs; the anklettes, more hipster leather bracelets than falconry equipment, were fastened to the one hundred and fifty foot long paracord.  Jess, another volunteer, cradled the owl--a strange, otherworldy infant--while Blake zigzagged the line on the ground to prevent it from spooling out too fast, and to control the owl’s flight speed.  The owl was a little like a ventriloquist’s dummy: body still, head wheeling back and forth, eyes wide open, and beak clacking in warning.  In the sky, two crows circled us, cawing in protest over the owl which they’d immediately spied from their perch in a nearby pine tree.  Great Horns make meals out of crows. “We’ll have to leave if they start divebombing her,” Jess said.         
When the crows finally scattered, Jess launched the owl: one hand on the bird’s back offering a steadying momentum, the other under its taloned feet, thrusting them forward.  The bird beat its broad wings in rapid succession, gaining altitude, and then opened them into a four foot extension.  Each beautiful, tough feather worked with the others, flapping and gliding, flapping and gliding. 

The leading, serrated edge of an owl’s flight feathers, or flutings, muffles the rush of air over the wings, allowing the owl stealth flight.  Birds die from feather trauma: a long, vertical barb runs down the center of a feather, and similar to a straw, sucks blood up to the smaller, horizontal barbs and hooklets; if the feather breaks and the wound doesn’t clot quickly, the bird can bleed out.  “It can take years to rehab a bird with trashed feathers,” Carol said.  Before, beyond a simple understanding of a feather’s general flight purpose, my curiosity had ended in aesthetic admiration of the white and gray seagull feathers I’d twirl between my fingers at the beach, or the shimmering blue jay feathers I’d find in my backyard. 

Beautiful and necessary.  Delicate and tough.        

The owl picked up speed; the line tensed and went taut.  The bird tumbled to the ground, startled out of her intention: clearly the line of maple trees across the field.  The crows swooped in again with their vociferous complaints.  The owl waited, feathers puffed, clacking loudly, necessarily hamstrung by the line.  In a few weeks though, the owl will be released back to home ground in Erie, back to instinct and chance without the safety and constraint of the line or meals of pre-butchered rat dusted in vitamin powder.  Before Blake launched her for a second run, I ruffled my fingers over her head, through the soft, bristle feathers.  The owl stared at me, blink! blink! and then turned away, eyes back on the blue sky.  She didn’t want to know me at all.  A reason for joy.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Divorce: Happy Dis-Anniversary

The other day, I was driving back from Erie with my daughter, Sophia, a forty-five minute ride of monotony; she was lost in the world of Instagram and YouTube, and I wanted to draw her out because she’s thirteen, because she started using mascara and eyeliner over the weekend, because every day I am afraid that I am losing her to her future, separate life, one that is only spuriously connected to me via text or vague, sideways responses when I ask her how she is: fine, okay, good.  So I try to model honest, respectful communication, to avoid bombastic melancholy, but to be truthful about how I feel.  While I used to keep a photo of Wonder Woman over my childhood bed, I am not a Super Mom--no lasso, no gold bracelets, no comic book immortality thanks to Bipolar Disorder, Anorexia, and Alcoholism, and being a member of the species Homo Sapiens.  Lately, though, I’m just sad.

So I turned down the radio (Taylor Swift) and said, “This is a hard weekend for me.”

 She looked up.  “Why?”

“A year ago, this weekend, is when I moved out of your dad’s house.”  (Your dad.  Not dad.  A way to create distance.  Yours.  Not mine, not any longer, anyway.)  “The year has gone by really fast; it still seems surreal.”  The pain of divvying up all of our shared “goods,” down to the photos in the albums, is still on the surface.  The strange, immediate distant hostility—Christopher didn’t want any pictures of my larger family and vice versa.  And he didn’t want the wedding album, didn’t even fight for it, as if eager to erase evidence of any intimate connection.  Granted, if I tried to flip through it now, looking at those younger, buoyant, gussied-up selves, believing in forever, in shared dreams, in innocent domesticity, I would dissolve in hopeless nostalgia.  Like Dr. Who (the kids’ latest obsession), I would long for time travel, to undo all that had gone wrong to ensure aliens didn’t kill us off: anger, betrayal, emotional dissociation. 

Dissociation.  Dis: a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force.  So not restorative time travel, but a force that reverses love and affection, severs the ties that bind two people together and the marriage vows that enact that promise.  Utterly without association.  Except for our children, who still, of course, long for the circle.  My son, turning ten in a few weeks, said what he wanted most for his birthday was for his family to have dinner together.  And by “family,” he meant Mom + Dad + Sophia + Alexander; and by “family,” he meant the four of us laughing over Five Guys burgers, and leaving in one car; and by “family,” he meant for the four of us to re-associate and repair what has been lost in our year apart.      

Sophia looked back at me in the rearview mirror, her eyes steady (and smudged with brown pencil).  “Are you okay?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s been really hard, especially not being with you all the time.”

“Even though you’re sad, you seem happier,” she said.

“What about you?” I said.  “What has been hard about this year?  What have you learned about yourself?”

She put her hand on the back of my shoulder, in consolation and connection.  “The separation is hard.  Not living together.”

“What have you learned about yourself, though, even in the hardness?”

She was silent, struggling, likely, to name the source of strength that has helped see her through all this.

“You know what I see?” I said.  “I see how resilient you are.  How much compassion you’ve shown to your Dad and me.  A lot of kids would have been thrown by this, would be full of anger.  Which is okay if you are, but I see how steady you’ve been.  Not that you have to be, because wobbling is okay, but you’ve haven’t let our difficulties shake up who you are and know yourself to be.  You’re pretty amazing.”

She smiled, but that was all a sometimes-self-conscious teen could take.  “Can we turn the music back up?” she said.

Equanimity.  That’s what my daughter has shown me this past year.  How to roll with the punches, instead of being flattened by them.  It’s hard to be alone, without an adult who loves me best of all.  Financial insecurity that comes with divorce is terrifying, and keeps me up most nights.  Dating is uncomfortable and still feels like cheating (not to mention the fact that I can’t exactly tell dates that I’m on disability or am Bipolar—definite romantic buzzkill).  On the other hand, my family and friends have astonished me in their generosity and love.  And I haven’t wanted to drink or starve myself over this.  Being numb is no longer an option for me.  While the full weight of grief and anger and happiness and hope can be overwhelming (thank god for the healthy displacement of CrossFit, running, yoga, and Netflix), the ravaging is worth it because I am here to tell my daughter and son that they are holy and astonishing and loved, and born, yes, from love.    



Saturday, October 24, 2015

'Tis the Season(al) Affective Disorder

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

With the kids jingle-belling

And everyone telling, “Be of good cheer!”

In the right (read: black and bleak) frame of mind, this Christmas carol can sound, to someone who is depressed, like the most banal, irritating, foolish advice.  That season again, when I’m wandering, zombie-like, around Big Lots, in search of bags of cheap Halloween candy (no deep pockets, so no Darth Vader or Disney Princess gets a King-sized Hershey from me), 24-packs of toilet paper, and weird boxes of Belarusian cookies.  Jolly holly carols blare from the loudspeakers, all with the underlying message: Try smiling!  Think positive!  It will all work out!  Tell that to the squashed chipmunk I sidestepped on my walk this afternoon through the cemetery, a deliberate destination that helps me remember that at least I’m alive.

Tis’ the season.  Not that season, not yet anyway.  But what has become a seasonal trek in search of a new psychiatrist.  This time, just when I found a doctor with the right combination of bio-psychiatric smarts and therapeutic warmth, he has an “inappropriate” relationship with a patient.  His license was suspended, and I’ve been waiting out the suspension for months, willing to overlook his transgression because he was that good.  This week he closed up shop for good.  Truth be told, I’m not sure I could have seen him again.  Instead of waiting for him to ask, “How are you?,” I would have shouted, “How could you?”  Maybe even shook my fist.  (Mood erratic?  Feeling a little out of control?  No--his transgression just hits too close to home.) 
So yesterday, I saw my primary care physician for medication refills.  I’ve only met him once before and so tried to act brave and nonchalant when he asked questions about my mental health history; I shrugged off my twenty hospitalizations, and told him I was feeling “mostly fine” considering the past year—divorce, betrayal, a-thus-far--futile job search.  Circumstantial rather than biological depression. 

He looked at me carefully, assessing my sarcasm.  “Do you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?” 
I laughed, “Aside from the everyday ones?” 

For a moment, I thought he might press his stethoscope to my temple to listen to the chatter in my brain.  “Really,” I said, “nothing atypical for Bipolar disorder.” 
Later, when I told him about the (literal) pain in my butt from running (piriformis syndrome), he slowly worked his thumbs down my spine.  Ahh, I thought, he is an osteopath.  Maybe he’ll try some sort of adjustment, shifting my spine and brain back into alignment.  And, too, I thought, with some shame, this is the most intimately I’ve been touched in years.  I wanted him to run his thumbs down my shins and up my forearms, to palpate my stomach, thump my back.  Alternately, I thought I could go see a massage therapist—it was clear why some people might pay for sex or professional cuddling.

But the exam ended, my spine, indeed, as straight as ever.  I left with my prescription refills-what are necessary to keep it all in balance, but what cannot cure a broken heart.    


Thursday, October 8, 2015

When Momma Was Mad: Bipolar Awareness Day

Today is Bipolar Awareness Day.  I assume you are the targeted audience and not me, because I am aware of this condition every day.  A “condition” rather than an “illness” because (1) “illness” suggests ongoing dissipation, hollow-eyed, marginal stability; (2) “condition” suggests an achievable management of symptoms; (3) in my mind, anyway, “illness” summons pity and shame, and “condition” more an optimal, practiced functioning—like Crossfit and how it maintains and develops strength and balance.  I’m working on staying upright, not yielding to the dark, annihilating voice that wakes me at four a.m. trying to persuade me that I am empty and done and a failure, and really, truly, Kerry, not interesting to anyone or loved by anyone, okay, your kids maybe but that’s genetically foreordained, and besides, you let them watch a lot of Dr. Who and buy them Burger King chocolate shakes.
But here’s the difference between having a condition and being actively ill.  Five years ago, I would have been drinking or cutting those dark thoughts away, would have been actively planning my exit, would have been unable to slow down for a walk with friends (or speed up, if running all out would help squash the voice), would have been once again locked in the quiet room at the psych hospital.  I was admitted so many times, and for so long, that the staff knew me by name, and always looked at me with tender if trepidacious concern: I was the manic woman who walked thousands of laps around the halls, refused food and conversation, and prayed every night that I wouldn’t wake up because my kids and husband would be better off without a mad, mad momma.

Shame.  The core emotion that ran my life, twisting thoughts and feelings in a Gordian knot.  All the things I was losing because of this illness.  My beloved job that helped me be who I was meant to be, which was helping students find their most authentic and intellectually ambitious selves. My now ex-husband never able to look at me in the same way again (how could he, after seeing me strapped down in the ICU, arms hacked up by the Devil of Depression?)  My children lost trust in me because of my vacillations between silence and rage, and leaving them for one hospital after another.  My friends and family tried to help in so many generous, selfless ways, but I turned my back on them in favor of the illness’s demands: drink, disappear, die.
All that’s almost five years ago.  And thanks (not really) to almost twenty five rounds of ECT treatment, I can’t remember much of it.  My hard drive wiped clean.  Ten years of my recollected past, which creates identity after all, is gone—I have to ask other people about my life, about the places I don’t remember travelling to, the readings I’ve given, books I’ve read, awards received, and most devastating, what my children were like when they were little.  Photos fill in the gaps, but the emotional resonance is often gone.  And writing!  The imagination relies on memory, drawing on existing knowledge and experience to create new ideas, new descriptions, new characters.  I am wed to a thesaurus and a screen that is often blank, throbbing in disappointed frustration. 

Most of what I recollect about my years of active illness is due to this blog’s archive.  I have to reread entries every few months to believe that I was as ill and out of control as people remember.  The only visceral indication I have about those years is a churning pit of dread that I carry with me, a ball python coiled in the gut that bites down when I get complacent.  But now, I rely on my healthier, conditioned voice: Calm down, deep breath, think happy thoughts, and no, this isn’t the time to go off your Lithium.  So much of what has happened this year—divorce, the betrayal, living on my own for the first time and half that time without my kids, a seemingly impossible job search—all of this could have sent me back down the rabbit hole.  Because yes, mental illness was fuzzy and safe, despite the cut-up arms and overdoses and hospitalizations.  Giving in to all the insane impulses meant I didn’t have to try to live anymore, didn’t have to love myself anymore—I could check out of myself.  (It was why I loved the moment when I was going under on Propafol for ECT—a little death each time.)  But in forgetting, I also get to relearn how beautiful my children are, how supportive my friends and family are, how much I am loved, and how loving I am.



Saturday, September 12, 2015

You Will Have a Long, Happy Life...In Bed

It’s been almost eleven months since my separation and divorce, and I’ve maintained an unintentional but instructive celibacy.  No vows, no shaving my head, no mendicancy (though my bank account might suggest that by the end of the month).  Just a stepping back from the entanglement of bodies, needs, and wants.  A tangible way to take my own measure.  Every relationship that I’ve been in since I was fourteen began with boozy (okay, drunk) fumblings that usually went farther than I regretfully wanted the next morning.  My first boyfriend dumped me via a note slipped through the slats in my locker.  He wrote, “You just don’t know how to be a girlfriend.”  What he meant was I didn’t really know how to kiss, didn’t grind my hips against his when we rolled around on the basement floor, didn’t slip my hand into his pants.  A failure to perform. 
That assessment, immature and thoughtless as it was, has dogged me my whole life.  It is my default mode of thinking about my sexual performance—and I say performance, because I might as well be on stage, consumed with self-consciousness, trying to slip into the expected character.  For a while, alcohol helped, allowing me to strut around my college boyfriend’s fraternity house bedroom in one of those porn star, G-string teddies; to kiss back, suck back, fuck back; to forget when I agreed to humiliating acts.  All of it in deference to being desired and holding that desire in place.  Alone with a Rabbit paying attention to what feels good only for me?  To take and take and take and not have to give back the expected, grateful returns?  Unimaginable.  I needed someone else to want me, and only me, and sustaining that required work and effort and blowjobs.

In “The Sex Myth,” reviewed yesterday in the New York Times, journalist Rachel Hills argues that we tie our holistic value to sexual desirability and performance which leaves us writhing in shame and self-loathing.  If we’re not having mind-blowing, sky-diving, perfect 69 sex all the time, and at all spontaneous hours, not just in the 10-11 pm window of perfunctory surrender, then we believe something is wrong with us.  I believed this, was told in several different ways by several different men that I wasn’t good enough.  Timid, lacking in advanced skills, defective libido, and though I know my vagina is perfectly fine, that it was too big to get him off (this before I ever pushed out two babies and could show him how big it could really get.  Eee gads!).  All the worrying and shame over whether I was good enough, desirable enough took its toll.  How could it not?  In bed with my partner, I was unable to concentrate on sensation because I was arranging my body in pleasing, attractive positions: maybe if I keep one leg up it will look skinnier…maybe if I suck in my stomach…maybe if I swallow…maybe if I turn out the lights I will be wanted more.
And then I found anorexia.  At first, a way to move towards perfection—regulation and order could work against the chaotic feelings of a self unable to feel whole and enough.  Follow the rules and you can quiet the unruly bits of your body, can stop worrying about how it looks under lights or another’s gaze because it is only a very few pounds in weight so you must, finally, be thin enough.  (Of course, anorexia’s end point is death—enough will only be when the body ceases to exist).  But anorexia, in a strange way, temporarily solved the problem of being enough—it allowed me to be undesirable.  No breasts, no body to hold onto, all physical intimacy eschewed.  Like alcohol, it numbs sensation and blots out shame, decimating true intimacy in its wake.

And so I wonder, as I feel the stirrings of desire again (not focused, merely the awakening), what it will be like to enter a sexual relationship knowing that I am enough.  It’s what this past year has taught me.  I don’t have to perform and contort myself into acrobatic shapes, nor obsess about my shortfalls in frequency comparisons, nor be the aggressive vamp nor the reticent submissive.  Intuitive intimacy born of integrity.  No vodka shots to help me out.  But as I’ve learned in recovery, no shame to hold me back.  The judges hovering at the mattress sidelines, have been (mostly) banished from the field of play.  Play.  Good enough sex.  The strength of vulnerability instead of the desperation of concealment.  I think I know how to be a girlfriend now.  And, I might add, what kind of boyfriend I need.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Commit Love

The other night, I was over my friends’ house for dinner.  A last minute invite: they had been out to the farm to pick tomatoes, boxes and bags of tomatoes, and needed to eat them, or some, that night.  The farm.  My insides tumbled.  Not their farm (they don’t have one), but the Yoder farm, the Amish family who grows all the vegetables for the CSA started up, in part, by my ex-husband (with my intermittent help).  In married life, I used to drive out to farm with C. and the kids, pick a trunkful of tomatoes, and spend days processing sauce, salsa, and bags of whole peeled Romas.  And chat with David, the farmer, and his wife, and their giggly half-dozen kids.  We even had them over for an Amish-English dinner party in our formal dining room.  One daughter, six or seven at the time, thought it was so fancy because I’d lit candles and put them in gleaming crystal holders shaped like stars.  Wedding gifts.  But in divorce, some friends get divvied up, just like the wedding gifts, which meant for two, go to one or the other.
This is not about the loss of wedding gifts, but the loss of friends.  The real loss.  Last week, one of my friends committed suicide.  Impossible to imagine (and I try not to) because she was always suffused with joy, at least when I saw her.  She owned the yoga studio where I practice.  Her smile was a stabilizing force and she inhabited her body with a grace I can only hope to achieve.  And yet, she is gone now.  A strange, legalistic phrase: “committed suicide.”  One commits crimes or commits to a relationship.  But suicide?  Perhaps initially as a cause of intended action.  But wholeheartedly?  That seems impossible, and I know since I once committed myself to such a course.  But gratefully I woke up in the hospital bed, my life, while not intact, given more time for repair.  Even in the pain and inside the intention and in the bottle of pills I swallowed, even in my irrational thinking, unable to see any other possibility, I don’t think I believed for an instant that I wouldn’t wake up at some point, even if that meant years on out, and see my daughter and son and husband again.  A faulty, fleeting solution to the pain of now, a decision, in its execution, that seemed temporary.  Except so often, it isn’t. 

Sorrow for my friend in her pain and the consequent devastation.  It is not easy to resist shutting down for good.  Sometimes, I wander into thinking that might be the only way—not as often as I used to—but still, what I imagine as a blank, dark quiet can seem preferable over the angry, hopeless noise in my head.  And then, my daughter emails me a sketch of the two of us, disguised as her invented cartoon characters.  The mother has her arm wrapped around the daughter’s shoulders, and they gaze at the other as if besotted. 

Love keeps me here.  Friends, too, and their tomato bounty.  So I commit love, then.  R. sliced up platters of enormous tomatoes marbled through like steak, and decorated them with mozzarella, feta, basil, salt and pepper.  We joked they were as big as the brains of small children or swollen hearts or alcoholic livers.  A way to counter sad mortality.  The three of us sat at the table, spearing tomatoes with our forks, juice and olive oil dripping from our chins.  We mopped up our plates with warm pita, spoke of our friend who was gone, and moved into the restoration and warmth of laughter.  That was our meal: the joy of summer’s bounty and the pain of its end, and friendship that could make a feast from what seemed like so little.        



Thursday, August 6, 2015

Divorce: After Words

This is what happens when you rush through a divorce, when you make agreements that it is for the best (out of kindness to each other); that it can be relatively benign; that yes, it has been over for you, too, for years: months later, what has been moldering in the basement (regret, grief, and the most intense nostalgic longing), drags you down into the dank, dark room. 

The day I moved into my rental house, everything was immediately and helpfully unpacked and arranged in the new space.  Pop-up home!  Even the knickknacks, the few I’d claimed (mermaid bowl, poppy pottery, glazed, clay birds) had found pleasing places.  The speed was a manifestation of my fear of being alone in foreign territory.  No need to live with the actual emptiness if all of my belongings (1/2 of what we’d owned together) were in an aesthetic order around me.  That approach was terrific except when it came to my books (1,000?) and bookcases.  The movers were magicians in folding and tying up my now-enormous-for-one king-sized mattress in order to squeeze it around the sharp-turning staircase.  No idea how they managed the box spring, but I can attest to sleeping on top of both every night, my body, out of twenty years of habit, still on the right side.  No sprawl, no claiming the whole bed for myself, just a polite amount of space, what is minimally necessary.  This, too, a buffer against loneliness.  Or perhaps my growing ability to claim the space I need.

In any case, the twenty-one boxes of books and bookcases were the last things to be moved into the house.  I was exhausted by the loading and unloading, by the fact that my then-husband was assisting (glad for his help, but in retrospect, cruel on the heart), by the fact that it was the end of my paid-for-time with the anonymous and accomplished movers.  When they tried to get the giant IKEA bookcase up the stairs, it wouldn’t fit, not without gouging out a piece of the wall (bad idea for my deposit).  So in haste and desperation, the only place that had room for the bookcases and books was the basement (dry, according to my landlord).  A stupid decision.  Everyone knows there is no such thing as a dry basement in Meadville.  But I was overwhelmed, and sent the bookcases down there along with my lifeblood—books I’d been collecting and reading since high school.

There is nothing, really, in the basement, so I never went.  Not for months and months, except for a brief two minutes at the beginning of the month to dump salt in the water softener.  So when I went down there a few weeks ago in search of a book, after a month of straight rain, I found the outside of all of my books covered in a thin fuzz of green mold.  This is what happens when I neglect what is meaningful, what gives me comfort and hope, what can often speak for my pain.  For hours, the kids and I wiped down every book with disinfectant wipes and carried them in stacks upstairs to the spare room that was once meant to house them.  I managed to save most of them—the bookshelves, mold creeping up the particle board, will have to be tossed.

All of this is to say, after the rush and surface detachment, I am in a delayed period of shock and mourning and longing for my now officially ended marriage.  My children are going to my former in-laws with my ex-husband (I still trip over that compound word, mention “my husband” in conversation, only to have to retract what I’ve said, ashamed that it is taking me so long to give him, us, up) and his girlfriend.  A new-sort-of-family trip.  Agonizing for all the reasons one might expect: someone in “my” place, someone who will sit at the same table where I sat drinking tea with my mother-in-law, someone playing in the pool with my/our kids and saying good night to them.  Though I would like to be ready for a new relationship, if only to cast off the pain of the old, I have to give myself time and space for that lonely emptiness: feeling the depression when it knocks me out, allowing for jealousy and anger rather than believing I am above them, and knowing, too, that though my spine might be covered in the mold of neglect, all is not ruined, love and hope can be salvaged.  

Thursday, July 16, 2015


My Glorious Daughter,

Thirteen.  The general age for pimples and periods, for the tentative stretching for freedom and latitude, for the wild fluctuations of hormones and the raw wounds left by self-doubt and self-critique.  You have become a teenager which means that as I begin to move to the periphery of your life, I will be an obstruction, at times, to what you want, and you might resent the magnetic pull of my love.  For months, I have been walking by your room, watching you curled up like a satisfied cat on the bed, texting and emailing your friends.  What do you chat about in the shorthand?  Do you speak only in irony and whispers?  I try not to ask, to offer to space in which you can begin to understand who you are and how you relate to the world.  But still: I want to know everything about you, you who were born less than six pounds and who immediately latched on to my breast, hungry and content at the same time.  
And you have been largely content.  Easy, unflappable, resilient through my long hospitalizations, through a semester’s move to Romania, through your father’s and my divorce.  That is, until I probe deeper, and you tell me how you hated the kindergarten in Bucharest, how none of the kids would talk to you (English/Romanian divide), how you were so lonely.  Or I remember the drawing you sent to me when I was in the hospital of an enormous winged creature, fierce, with a mouth on fire, and the words, “Momma Come Home!”  Or when you tell me one night, when we are lying on your bed, that you’re used to the back and forth between my house and your father’s, but it makes you tired. 

When I was thirteen, I got drunk for the first time.  A friend and I took swigs from almost every bottle of alcohol in my parent’s liquor stash.  Vodka and Crème de Menth, Scotch and Drambuie.  It was the moment I discovered that alcohol could deliver me, temporarily, from myself.  At thirteen, I was consumed by self-doubt, terrified of not being liked, and always, always found myself lacking in beauty, intelligence, creativity, social swagger.  Alcohol became the way through the maze, and ultimately, led to a devastating dependence.  I told you about this because I want you to know that you have a choice.  Even though adolescence seems largely about reacting to decisions and expectations imposed from the outside, that you can choose to remain your essential self when the struggles of the next few years present themselves.  Chose “yes,” choose “no,” but let your decisions resonate with your best, most joyful, most compassionate self.
What I wish for you is that you stay the way you are.  Not, of course, frozen in time, forever turning thirteen, forever, still, an innocent, but that you are in possession of yourself.  I marvel at your ability to be resilient, to bend and curve around the challenges, whether they are learning a piece of music for your clarinet or teaching yourself how to use a computer animation program.  You worry about schoolwork and grades (I was consumed), but don’t wrap your self-worth up in an A or B.  You do your best but know when to ease off.  You have always followed your passions, are inspired by them, commit to them whether it was making clay dromos, a cross between dragons and unicorns, and selling them to buyers near and far, or deconstructing your stuffed animals, sewing an elephant trunk on a cheetah or a monkey’s tail on a penguin, or devoting yourself to drawing and animation, determined that this will be your path. 

And then there is the way you confide in me, wondering about boys and tampons and intricate maneuverings of adolescent friendships.  When you were born, I made an oath to myself that I would never lie to you.  That you could ask me anything and I would offer the truth.  In hopes that you might respond in kind: turning to me when you were sad or desperate or confused and I would be there, willing to listen.  I hope I have lived up to my promise, that I have helped you understand that you can be authentic, that you are good enough—a bulwark against the pressures of adolescence  and a buttress as you become who you are.  Happy Birthday!



Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Summer In Solitary

The garden of my new house, my rental house, surprises me each day: bleeding heart, tiger lilies, lungwort, coreopsis.  Unpredictable, because this is not my home backyard, and when I say home, I mean the house I spent the last fifteen years in, tearing down faux-Victorian wallpaper and painting sunnier colors.  That backyard was often filled with desultory weeds, persistent mosquitoes, and the combined poop of two Labrador retrievers.  My ex-husband and I were lazy about landscaping, preferring travel over staying put, or lounging in a lawn chair with a book over earnest tending.  We had spurts of homeowner energy: ten garbage bags of weeds and brush, another of dog poop, mossy rocks scrubbed, swingset de-spider webbed in under an hour.  Then nothing for weeks.  Even though the yard was the size of a postage stamp, it was overwhelming (in upkeep) and underwhelming (effort + time did not = results).  One of our great tricks was to dump massive amounts of mulch over everything every few months to hide the forsaken landscape.
At my rental house, because there are no dogs, a rabbit frequently hops around the yard to the great delight of the kids who have named it Stacy.  And there are cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, and hummingbirds that fly in low and peck around in the grass.  Landscaping and maintenance?  Hired help descends weekly to mow the lawn, pull weeds, and trim bushes into manicured shapes. But as marvelous as these surprises are, I am still struck dumb every day by the fact that I am not home.  I don’t actually mean the physical structure of my former house, but home—a place, a space that is meaningful, that allows for stability and shared mutual purpose.  Because this is a rental house, everything feels transitory.  I’m afraid of leaving my imprint on the space as my landlords would deduct the damage from my deposit.  Nothing feels like mine and everything feels like not mine.  I go out for a run or walk and often have to remind myself that this house is coming up in the middle of the block.  Or put my key in the lock and am astonished that it opens.

I live here and yet, I don’t because everything is impermanent.  Am I even creating present memories?  In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes about home being a space for dreaming.  The only dreams I remember have to do with my previous, wedded life and I am awake half the night anyway, my gut gnawing at itself with anxiety over where my life is headed.  Do my kids, who live here every other week with me, consider this their half-time home?  Or is it more like a bed-and-breakfast, a place to stay, with me, until they return home to their father?  Of course, they reassure me that they love it here: there is the long, double-lot yard where they can play Nerf gun war with their friends, and they love taking evening walks around the new neighborhood—it is serene compared to the traffic that rings their other home, and then, I have central A/C which means they no longer have to sweat through the nights. 
But do they long for here when they are back there?  Which gets at the real question: do they long for me when they are gone every other week?  Because I always considered myself inextricably home for them, as they are for me.  Which is why everything feels transient: I don’t have a partner to call home anymore.  On the weeks without my kids, when I walk from the garage to the house, I feel overcome by emptiness—there’s no one waiting inside to welcome me back.  On these summer evenings, when the light is long and late, I often am eager for the dark, and bed, and Ambien.  And then I remember to lighten up; it’s summer!—I no longer have to shovel three feet of snow from the sidewalk each morning nor walk through the snow tunnel in the backyard.  So I take my dinner outside (yes, usually a lame bowl of cereal-for-one) and sit in the lawn chair, watching the birds, and the rosy sky and remembering that the life that is coming back to me may surprise me yet. 



Sunday, May 24, 2015

In Memoriam

Down the street from my house is Greendale Cemetery, bucolic despite its somber purpose.  Huge arched gates frame the entrance.  The meandering roads and paths that travel the gentle hills were once meant for horse and carriage and so, are narrow and graceful, barely wide enough for the landscaping truck to fit.  Graves go back to the 1700’s; names on many stones are worn away, and still other, recent ones, have photographs imbedded in the stones, the living faces of the now dead.  There are the children’s stones, carved angels and lambs sleeping on top; a stone motorcycle; a lion clutching a globe; and married couples interred together, husbands and wives often dying within days or months of each other as if they couldn’t bear to be apart.  And because it is the season, the purple and pink rhododendrons are in explosive bloom, and trees, some as old as three hundred years, offer wide canopies of shade.  It is an exquisitely peaceful place to walk—which is what I’ve been doing there for the past couple of days.
Memorial Day weekend—all the veterans’ graves bear American flags.  As I walk, I find myself drawn to these graves, reading the names, noting the marker in the ground that denotes which war that soldier fought in.  Revolutionary War veterans, Civil War veterans—one soldier who died at Gettysburg, WWI and WWII veterans, and Korea and Vietnam.  Normally, I wouldn’t spend so much times giving honor, normally I would quickly walk the loops, intent on exercise, normally I wouldn’t find myself tearing up by the grave of a stranger who had died in battle.  But I’m already feeling a bit fragile this Memorial Weekend, my sadness close to the surface.

My kids are with my ex-husband at his family member’s wedding.  A wedding that I imagined myself at when we received news of the engagement a year ago.  All year, whenever I imagined May, I imagined the wedding.  Now, of course, I am in my new home, alone, and not there with them.  I’ve been avoiding Facebook all weekend because friends and relatives of my ex-husband have been posting pictures of the wedding and reception.  Most painful, are the pictures my ex-husband posts of himself with our kids, all dressed up and beautiful and there without me.  Pictures of the wedding reopen the wounds I’ve been trying to close these past six months because they remind me of my own wedding, and those very same people who attended our celebration.  And I am reminded of the death of my dream, our dream that began with such surety and hope.
Much like the feeling I get as I walk through the cemetery surrounded by thousands of people who were like me: full of hope for the future and buoyant determination and a belief that they were doing the absolute right thing.  A marriage doesn’t simply die on the day divorce papers are signed.  Dreams are slow to recede.  All those couples buried together, so many stones reading, “Joined in eternity.”  It stops my heart because I wonder and fear: Will I be buried alone?  This isn’t meant to be maudlin—in a way, my grief commemorates the life that once was.  Much like the flags and markers beside the veterans’ stones.      

Thursday, March 26, 2015

No Shortcuts

There’s this short-cut road I take to school when the snow melts, a dirt road maybe a mile long.  When I drive down this road, my concentration washes out, maybe it’s the bland, brown ground or the long tunnel of trees, but I drive without really paying attention which is a terrible mistake; this road, because it is dirt and because it has just been winter, is riddled with crater-sized potholes that can take out my undercarriage.  And it often feels like they do.  I need to be driving with the skill of Mario Andretti, not some addled, Sunbelt retiree.

But this is what my post-divorce emotional attunement—or mis-attunement--feels like.  A kind of disaffection or disconnection from my own feelings.  All those potholes riddling my insides after the brutal winter and I just want to drive right over them in blithe obliviousness.  Though of course, it is more than just obliviousness, isn’t it.  It is holding the heart at bay.

There are things you do when you’re alone that you didn’t have to do when you were together.  For me, that is dinnertime cooking, aka mechanized cooking.  My ex-husband is a splendid cook, naturally gifted.  And we had an often shared rhythm: I would help where I could, but mostly, I would watch, hand him things, and keep up the chatter that focused on the comings and goings of the days, about our kids, about the small, what might seem inconsequential victories of our lives.  And then we’d eat, together.  (Yes, this ritual had been badly damaged for a time by my eating disorder, but it was rescued.)  Alone?  I’m a tortured, neophyte cook, needing the steps of a recipe.  I make a big batch of something—soup, stew, chili—at the beginning of the week so I don’t have to think about it again until the end—and then  eat it every day, microwaving it over and over, feeling its repetitive tyranny over me by Day 3, which also by this fact loses its flavor.  Little pleasure, no conversation.  Just driving over the potholes.

It is difficult to simultaneously come back to life and to my beating broken heart.  Part of me is trying to be Marlo Thomas in “That Girl,” new life, new career, striking out on my own with a brave, independent front, trying to say “yes” to what the universe is offering to me.  The other part of me is still reeling from loss and betrayal and the end of the dream.  Sometimes I still believe that I am that twenty-four year old girl, because I was a girl, wearing the long flowy dress, standing beside the stone wall overlooking the port of Hydra in Greece saying “yes” to C..  It feels so close and all still so possible, and all the intervening years, the ones where things went wrong, anyway, so distant.  And even now, after all the pain that has transpired, I want to call him to talk about the losses and gains of the day, about the hurts and the joys, about him and me, about our kids.  But I don’t.  I can’t.  Because I am paying attention now to feeling and this is supposed to hurt and it’s not supposed to be easy.  My heart is supposed to break and he can’t put it back together for me anymore.  Only I can do that. 


Friday, January 2, 2015

What's In A Name?

What’s in a name?  An assembly of letters which identify me as me and not you.  Me as “Kerry” and not “George.”  It gives sharp edges to an otherwise malleable body.  And yet, when I say my own name over and over and over—Kerry-Kerry-Kerry-Kerry-Kerry—I hardly know myself. 
I’ve been given many names.  Kerry Beth at birth.  I never felt like myself, if that makes any sense.  Especially the “Beth.”  I used to think Kerry Beth sounded like some white-gloved Southern Miss, or the opposite, a pregnant-at-sixteen-in-the-trailer KerryBethAnneMarieJoBob.  I was also Kerry-Berry-Bo-Berry-Banana-Bana-Bo-Berry-Fi-Fi-Fo-Ferry-Berry!  And nobody could every spell Kerry.  I was either Carrie or Keri or Kari.  Why couldn’t I be Lauren, which suggested a perfect canter on the back of a thoroughbred and exact elocution instead of my clumsy gait and pell-mell rush of words? 

Kerry the Kissing Girl.  Another one of my names, given in kindergarten because I liked to chase boys up and down the schoolbus trying to kiss them square on the lips.  I was never successful but apparently kept up my attempts long enough to earn the romantic moniker.  What I remember are the high-pitched squeals of the others girls as I passed them in my dash down the aisle in pursuit of my quarry.  I think the squeals were more “eew” than in solidarity, though.
Krazy Kerry.  The beginning of some of the Bipolar highs.  A nickname given in elementary school in the moments when I couldn’t calm down, laughing too hard, pushing the edges too far, unable to rein myself back in.

N the Devil.  Also an elementary school name, in keeping with above, albeit with swagger. 
Lady of the Lake.  A college nickname.  This lovely one bestowed upon me after I jumped into a frigid campus lake in a drunken suicide attempt one November.  The name stuck for three years.  Men—boys, really—called me that to my face, with cruel intention.  It was meant to humiliate and shame me.  And it did.

KNB.  My only name of choice.  Through marriage.  By love.  It was a way to shed all that old history, the accumulation of ghost names and become my own chosen self.  It was a way to link myself to another person, to create a bond through a name, to announce to the world that I had chosen and was chosen, feminism for once be damned.  I loved getting my new Social Security Card and Driver’s License, with this new name, and inventing a new signature—what would I look like, what would my mark be on the page?
And then in etymology, my name became Dark New City on the Hill.  Evocative, mysterious, capable of great power.  No passive Lady of the Lake.

And playful.  KNB could transform into Curry Navel Bacon.  A manic culinary wonder.
KNB was part of a whole.  Was golden coupled.  Had gone forth and multipled even. 

And now it had come undone.
KNB, once again.  What does it mean to return to a name once thought given up for good?  People ask for my name, and I keep slipping, saying “B,” and then have to correct myself, or don’t, just letting it go, letting myself be B, still, while also now N.  Or I write “B,” meaning “N,” on a check and have to Void it out and start again.  And then there’s the matter of a signature—I don’t have one, not a reliable one yet.  It changes every time I sign my new old name.

The strangest, saddest moment was receiving a check from C. a few days ago.  He addressed it to me.  Me: “KBN.”  The me that is in days no longer his wife.  The me that now carries the name of the person he met all those years before we married.
And then I think maybe it’s high time to finally meet this gal who has been hiding behind the K and the B and the N after all these years.  It is the name that I chose this time around.




Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Half of a Holiday

The first Christmas a week away from being divorced.  I don’t think I could have planned the convergence of these two events any better.  It sounds like the beginning of some really awful chick flick where the protagonist is drunk on Baileys and eggnog and Peppermint Schnapps, bemoaning the end of all that is good, all that is possible, before she throws up all over her best friend and her favorite shoes, and maybe her fluffy white dog, too.  Thankfully, I’m almost four years sober and my favorite beverage, à la Gilmore Girls, is coffee, and my best friends only have to put up with my occasional descent into “woe is me” and I don’t own any fluffy white anything unless you count my daughter’s super soft, white throw blanket, which is hers and hers alone.

But that doesn’t mean this has been an easy Christmas.  I’ve been calling it my Half of a Holiday.  It started with the division of the Christmas ornaments on Thanksgiving.  They were still all over at C’s house in the basement waiting for us to split them up.  All the ornaments we’d collected together, as a married couple over the twenty years together.  The cheap toy soldiers bought when we were graduate students from the dollar store in Houston that decorated our tiny first tree that lasted miraculously all these many years.  The glass “Baby’s First Christmas” tree for Sophia.  The black lab for April, our first beloved dog who died several years back.  Ornaments the kids made for us in their preschool years.  An angel Sophia made as a tree topper.  How to divide any of them?  How to take one and not the other?  We sat in the livingroom, with the ornaments in piles—Sophia’s handmade ones; Alexander’s handmade ones; ones we’d been given; ones we’d bought—and just started taking turns choosing.  My heart splitting open with each choice.  I want a Sophia and an Alexander and a Sophia and an Alexander.  Not an either or.  And then it was over and our piles were half piles and my tree was half full.

Under the tree was half full, too as I was working with half the funds for Christmas shopping that I normally would be working with.  This Christmas has been a lesson in humility and economy but also gratitude.  There were moments when I would feel ashamed that I couldn’t pile up the presents beneath the tree for my kids.  What’s the word?  Plenty.  The other word?  Abundance.  Visual abundance.  I wanted them to be bowled over by all the gifts like they have been used to every year.  The pile-up of presents.  I wanted them to know that I could give them everything they wanted.  That I could do it on my own.  (Really, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.  Pride.)  And of course, I imagine if you added the gifts their father was going to give them to the gifts I was giving them, they would have that abundance.  But my gifts on their own?  They didn’t look like much beneath the tree and all I could see was lack.  And I was sure they would see it, too: Mom was only half capable.  Mom could only give half of a Christmas. But when Sophia and Alexander came over and saw the tree all lit up, and saw the presents beneath the tree, they didn’t see anything missing.  Instead, all they could say, over and over for two days straight, was, “There’s so many presents!  I can’t wait to open them!  I can’t believe they’re all for us!”  Where I saw not enough, they saw more than enough.

And then of course, it was half a holiday because I was only with my children for half the holiday.  This is how it will go from now on and on and on.  And I should be grateful as this is the easy year since C and I divided Christmas in half—I had the kids a few days up to and including Christmas Eve, he had them Christmas Day and the next several days.  It was not just a matter of decorating my house by myself, putting up the tree and the lights, hanging the garland up the staircase, it was the moments that revealed absence that were most painful.  And not even just the absence of the kids on the days and nights when they were with C., but the absence of C., the absence of the presence of marriage, of union, of there being four.  When I was hanging up the stockings and there were only three hanging from bannister.  Christmas cards arriving in the mail addressed only to me.  Attending holiday parties alone and everyone else at the parties in pairs.  Buying gifts for the kids, and in my excitement, having no one to show them to before wrapping them up.  Sitting in front of the tree late at night wishing there was someone I could talk to about the year that had passed.  Feeling only half of me was there.

So how did I fill up my empty half?  C. took the kids to Wisconsin for those days after Christmas.  I wasn’t going to sit in front of that tree alone wishing for what wasn’t anymore.  So I went to my family in New York for Broadway fun, shopping, movies, mani/pedi, laughter, connection, marathon talks, and a fancy haircut to boot.  A full New Year’s order.